Kerry James Marshall: Picturing Contemporary History
By Tonik Wojtyra
Kerry James Marshall was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, and currently lives and practices in Chicago. Growing up during the height of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Marshall channels this experience into drawings, sculptures and large-scale paintings that uses African-American history to critique persistent stereotypes in American culture.
The Vancouver Art Gallery’s current exhibition of Marshall’s work, his first solo in Canada, brings together 20 paintings that are representative of his practice. Here, artist and writer Tonik Wojtyra engages in a discussion of the exhibition with painter Arabella Campbell.
Tonik Wojtyra (TW): In art school, I had a black friend who, on more than one occasion, repeated what his high school art teacher at Upper Canada College had said to him: "Women can't make good paintings. Just look at history." The library reflected the truth of this arrogance, of course. Upon hearing this “axiom” again and again, I began to retort that "Black men can't make good paintings, either. Just look at history." It's true that most art libraries and art collection are scant of art by black artists. And so, history remains lopsided.
Arabella Campbell (AC): Your mentioning history reminds me of how, when I first looked at Kerry James Marshall’s work at the VAG, my immediate reaction was to figure out where in history these paintings existed. Usually, I would look at a painting and analyze it formally and aesthetically, and ponder the subject matter. But, not so with these paintings. I am interested why the discussion around Marshall’s work is often initially propelled by the desire to fit it into the art-historical canon, acknowledging, of course, the obvious reasons.
TW: At the VAG, Marshall's show is a cornucopia of painting historicizing the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, Chicago public housing projects, casting blacks into vignettes and also, my favourite paintings in the show, the portraits. The latter are the most understated, and are overshadowed by the very large and abundant series of Garden Project paintings. There was one portrait in the show of a painter at his easel, and Marshall had painted in splotches and smears on the portrayed artist's pants. It's a masterful painting of a painter and Marshall has painted paint on the painter. It's a colourful picture. But, the painter in the portrait is black, an unreal black. Marshall makes black operate like a pun. And it makes me ask: Is black a colour?
AC: Black is colour. In Marshall’s work, black acrylic paint is a colour. But, I don’t think I really knew this or maybe I came to a new understanding of black after I experienced Marshall’s Black Painting (2003–2006). I think his use of the colour black is most interesting in this painting. This is my favourite painting in the exhibition. The painting is barely decipherable and one must change the way one usually looks at a painting to really see it. Because of the dense, solid black tones that cover the whole surface, you have to move your whole body along the painting. In shuffling side-to-side in front of this painting, the multitude of achromatic black tones reveal the image beneath. Both the subject and the colour have the paradoxical quality of being present and absent the same time.
TW: It is a unique painting because the viewing method that you describe, coursing one's body left and right to decipher the image, doesn't often happen in painting. Paintings are typically seen as a gestalt. In this case though, the experience is actively voyeuristic because in the picture we find a couple in bed, obviously in the wee hours of the night. Angela Davis's If They Come in The Morning is on the night stand and there's a Black Panther poster on the wall. The viewer becomes an investigator, a detective, a snoop, a Peeping Tom. Can you think of another painting that made you look at it in such a departure from the norm?
AC: No, not many paintings have asked me to be a detective like this, but I can think of another instance where I examined a painting with the same focus and desire to uncover something. The feeling was not the same, though. It was Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). I thought I could learn something about how he painted if I drew every drip, splash and line of paint, focusing on one colour at a time and separating them into individual drawings. This was the first time I visited the Met in New York. So, yes in a similar way I was trying to decipher the meaning and subject, but it was more about unearthing with my eyes than a full body investigation that the Black Painting calls for. Why you like the solo portraits? I see every painting of Marshall’s as a portrait.
TW: I like the portraits first of all because who paints such dignified portraits anymore? Also, they are quiet and modest in the show. The Garden Project and Souvenir paintings are mural-like with their ribbons and text and glitter and almost mural size. And, they make me uncomfortable; are they maybe a little didactic? On the other hand, the portraits are seductive and much more focused on the subject depicted. They are straight-forward paintings lacking the twists that Marshall infuses in his largest works. The paint, like the subject, is always composed and august. And, as a viewer, I feel like I could chat with these strangers. They are approachable; I'd like to be one-to-one. They are, because of their cool blackness, alien, but so attractive. The portrait of the curator had me completely intrigued. Is she wearing a kimono? I kept wondering, Who are you and what exhibitions have you curated? And, the way she's holding those glasses…it makes me want to look because I have the sneaking suspicion that she's more in focus than I am. How do you mean that every painting of Marshall's is a portrait?
AC: I should clarify. I think that all of the paintings in the VAG show, not every painting he has ever done, could fall into the category of portraiture. I see these paintings as portraits because I think they are painted with an intent to depict the visual appearance of the subject and, as a result, show the inner essence of the subject while addressing contemporary black experience. I do appreciate the simplicity and clarity of the portraits you describe. Maybe it has something to do with scale? The figures in the Garden Project paintings do not correspond with the size of the painting — a larger-than-life setting, yet the figures are just smaller than life-size. I have been thinking a lot about what it takes to make an uncomfortable painting and maybe these fit that category?
TW: You're right about the scale. Marshall's portraits are a common scale for portraits anchored in Western painting. The scale, subject and use of material is comfortable, so why am I in discomfort with the big pieces? In the larger works, there is discord in Marshall's application: there is the suave, smoothly, classically rendered paint of the figures, and then there are the drips and runs used to render flowers and bushes. The scale is not foreign. These are scaled as large European history paintings, but they are also scaled to the size of abstract expressionist paintings, like the Pollock you mentioned. Marshall melds the reigning poles of representation and abstraction so neatly…maybe too neatly, because the paintings are about doomed housing projects and the distance between what I know from history and what the contemporary is. It's uncomfortable and confusing. And thus, it is wonderful because I have to adjust the story of paint and history, in my head. That's not too much of stretch, is it?
AC: I think these works move us because of their distress and I think all of those disparate elements that you mention — the drips, the splotches, the banners entangling legs — are important to Marshall's goal of representing the failed ideal of providing affordable housing to a growing population in the U.S. Yes, it is quite wonderful that the viewer has to adjust their point-of-view based on a particular application of a conventional medium — paint — and face these largely unpictured contemporary histories for what they really are.
Kerry James Marshall continues at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Jan. 3, 2011.
Tonik Wojtyra uses the Internet, photography, writing and painting in collaborative ways to make art. He is currently living in Banff and working as a painter.
Arabella Campbell lives and works in Vancouver. Her work was recently included in Everything Everyday at the Vancouver Art Gallery and Painted Over/Under at LACE, Los Angeles. Exhibitions in 2011 will be mounted at Catriona Jeffries Gallery and CSA Space, both in Vancouver.
Other Vancouver exhibitions
Ben Reeves and Etienne Zack
To Dec. 23, 2010
Two of the West Coast’s most interesting painters show new series of work. In his exhibition, Everyday Hallucinatory, Reeves forgoes figuration in favour of gorgeously built-up masses of oil paint. In Non-Narrative Notes, Zack continues experimenting with skewed perspectives and densely packed environments in a suite of ink and gouache works on paper.
To Jan. 8. 2011
Vancouver-based artist and musician Julia Feyrer screens The Poodle Dog Ornament Bar, a ‘non-narrative’ 16-mm film shot in a make-shift set that recreates an 1890s Gastown bar of the same name. The film captures a range of performances, readings and events by individuals who also partook in the artist’s homemade wine, resulting in an accumulation of improvised moments that bring elements of the past into the present.
Presentation House Gallery
To Jan. 16, 2011
Currently based in London, England, the Toronto-born Gilligan debuts a new eight-part film series entitled Popular Unrest. Set in a surreal but not-too-distant future, the films address the global political situation after a recent economic crisis. Shot in London using 12 main actors, the films’ script were influenced by David Cronenberg’s work, as well as popular forensic TV shows like Dexter and the C.S.I. franchise. As with other video works, the episodic structure of Popular Unrest takes its cue from television’s ability to dispense a storyline in stages, emphasized by the five viewing booths of the installation.